Illustration by Priyal Shah

Listen to this Story
Narrated by Anjan Prakash

HOW LOCALLY ATTUNED & RESPONSIVE ARE WE?

1. How Locally

The puff-throated babbler is back to sing his most unusually long song between 6.50am – 6.55am like he did, a year ago; the Gray Langurs or the Hanuman Langurs as they are called have returned to our tamarind trees to enjoy the fruits; a whole new bunch of wildflowers blooming on the vines have been attracting a particular set of birds and insects to feed on them; and many new migratory species have also made their appearance. This is our winter flora and fauna. In a few months, summer will bring with it a whole other set of food sources, and with it the feeding behaviour, location and patterns will change. Our Goan neighbours, many of who work in the fields for their food, carry different tools in different months, in order to tend to diverse crops, even as seasons and weathers change. And with it their costumes change too, which gives us a tiny glimpse into the work they might be planning to do that day. Through all these beautiful beings, I see and sense, how locally attuned and responsive they are with the ecosystem that surrounds us now.

It is mid-January 2022, and a year since we moved to Goa.

Out of the two years of pandemic so far, the first year was back in Mumbai. And the second, in this new environment.

An area of reflection during these two years has been about an essential system that we build for ourselves, no matter where we live or move to, which is our daily food ecosystem – identifying places and people to source our daily vegetables, fruits, groceries, eggs, seafood, meat, and so on. In coming to Goa, this reflection has been further enriched through the month after month experiences of how seasonal changes in the food availability and the related weather drives much of the behavioural pattern in all species, including humans.

As the orchestra of such Life that surrounds us comes with winter notes, as the new colours of the flowers and fruits entice a change in their pollinators and seed dispersers’ behavioural pattern, as the touch of the weather enters the skin with a nip and chill, as the taste of the local ingredients reaching the palate feels anew, and as the smell of the air casts the spell of this season, I am being called to share some of my reflections on our essential daily food system with you, and then invite you to share, so I can learn more from your lens.

2. How Attuned

When we talk about personal health today, thanks to the work of several pioneers in food systems across the world and in India, most of us are aware what it means to go local, seasonal and regional. There is a growing understanding of what it means for our bodies to be nourished by what comes from the land near us and around us, the pleasure of eating local. I also notice so many young people, young chefs, young home-makers, and young farmers bringing alive traditional and indigenous recipes, as well as using local ingredients to experiment with global cuisines – Lauki (bottlegourd) pesto pasta, a recipe shared by a friend that tastes so flavourful, ragi (finger millet) crepes, jowar (sorghum) noodles, and so many delicious ways to fuse cuisines.

Wendell Berry, the renowned American novelist and farmer, in his essay, The Pleasures of Eating, says, `Eating is an agricultural act. Eating ends the annual drama of the food economy that begins with planting and birth’. What a rich insight about eating, that it is the grand finale to the whole agricultural process. 

In the scientific discipline of Biomimicry, we learn that one of the most important principles that govern all life on earth, including us humans, as we too are subject to the very principles, is – Being Locally Attuned and Responsive. This is one of the foundational natural laws that is deeply ingrained and witnessed in all living forms who inhabit the earth, and is very much alive in several human communities, tribes, rural economies, and indigenous people of our societies.

This principle is about being able to tap into our local environments for what we need in our daily lives, find a way to consume, build, and manage our needs from what is available easily and abundantly in our regions, and to cultivate as many symbiotic relationships as possible, such that, what we might not have or possess is smartly offered through the gifts of someone else, and vice versa. Basically, we create a self-sufficient sustainable local ecosystem, where all needs of a living form is met through interwoven interdependency from our local habitat, so in turn the whole system survives and thrives through this giving and receiving.

If we look at this specifically from the lens of our daily food system, all our human ancestors, practiced this principle effortlessly, effectively and efficiently for millions of years. Similarly, when we observe the more-than-human communities we share this earth with, they survive and thrive by aligning to this natural law, ever since Life first appeared on earth. These life forms invest in figuring out local food and water sources, attuning to surroundings where they live, so it can be accessed regularly and as needed. They actively participate in the giving and receiving, a reciprocal quality inherent to the web of life. In certain seasons, if what they need is unavailable, they either rely on what they have stored during the year, or they hibernate, and few travel great distances, through migrations, in order to reach the local source of a different habitat to nourish them. Being locally attuned and responsive, for their daily food nourishment is so natural to 99% of Life, that we probably may even skip noticing it.

Today in most urban food systems, we have made new additions, and created access to many other types of food, apart from fresh food. While this is fun and okay to explore for occasional treats and indulgences, unfortunately the downside has been the growing engagement and dependency with industrial food, and fast food culture, due to the convenience labels they carry which over time can turn us into passive consumers, unaware of the land it has come from, the chemicals used, the manufacturing processes, how far it has travelled, or what has gone into the food for it to store so long. We might be foregoing our inherent nature as active, questioning and interdependent consumers.

However in the context of this pandemic, I specifically wish to bring our attention to what I also observed in our urban communities which many of us are a part of. When we are severely challenged or hit by a crisis, whether individually or collectively, we almost always realize that our resilience, is still embedded in our immediate environment. In being attuned to what can support and sustain us, through what surrounds us. This became very clear to me, during the last two years. I share two beautiful ways through which, we as Indians, have culturally attuned and nurtured our local food economies, which in turn enabled such a nourishing responsiveness during the pandemic:

  • Attuning to local long-term relationships: In a large part of our country, we are still predominantly served by traditional stores, called Kirana They are the Mom & Pop stores and conveniences stores for groceries; the specialty stores for medicines, stationery and other essentials within each area or pincode. And then we are supported for our vegetables and fruits by the street vendors and street markets. It is probably the same stores from which our grandparents and parents bought food, and as the shops and vendors passed hands to the next generation, so too have our parents passed it onto us. Many such stores and vendors in cities like Mumbai, gladly home deliver, whether the billing is Rs. 50/=, which is less than a dollar, be it is just a kilo of onions, or a few lemons. Through each order placed, they are investing in the relationship with the consumer, and the consumer is investing in a relationship with the vendor no matter the size of the commercial transaction. In many cases, they know about each other’s families, the upcoming celebrations and challenges, and this forms a bond of its own. The gifts of such a relationship, manifests in different ways, and we shall come to that. I remember a significant part of the attendees at our wedding were members of such a relationship – the milk vendor’s family, the medicine seller’s family, the vegetable vendor’s family, the flower selling family, all of whom my father engaged with regularly, and who eagerly awaited my marriage.
  • Attuning to relationships of trust: The next part that I have experienced is, whether we have the right amount of change, by that I mean smaller currency notes to clear the bill, or whether we have forgotten to carry any money as we had only casually stepped out for a walk but ended up buying things for the houses, many of the vendors in India, gladly keep a tab of what is bought, even if they have only done business with us just a couple of times, or could be even for the first time, and they are happy to have us return and pay them later. There is a fundamental human-to-human trust that operates, that springs out of knowing that we are a part of this community and therefore an interdependent web, that the person who owes the vendor, will return, as he/she is local and equally wishes to build this relationship. In such a trusted community, such self-organisation always wins.

In attuning to local relationships, built on love, care and trust, it appears that for generations we had already laid the foundation for what was to come, during the demands and hardship of the pandemic.

3. How Responsive

In so being locally attuned, how did this serve the entire food ecosystem during the pandemic? What sort of responsiveness did such urban communities experience?

  • Smart Rationing: People in urban settlements who had invested in these local relationships, providers with consumers and consumers with providers, were far better supported through the lockdown and during periods of short supply, than those who had not invested in it. Food providers ensured that they smartly and sensitively rationed whatever product/essentials they managed to acquire for the day, to all their customers, ensuring none of us went hungry or had to struggle to procure them.
  • Smart Technology: The smaller vendors stayed in touch through mobile phones, adapting quickly to sending the list of what they had managed to procure, through Whatsapp messages. They didn’t worry whether we paid them immediately or later, and over time they figured how to send their bank details, or downloaded apps such as google pay and PayTM, and many consumers helped them set up the tech needed for such transactions. Most of the food needs of those who had built these win-win relationships were met, without us having to move out of the house, or walk more than a kilometre.
  • Attuning to the responsibility of being a part of the system: It brought me to tears one day, when during the most challenging days of COVID how our local fruit and vegetable vendors, many of who still push carts each day with the produce; small family-owned shops in our areas; and people home delivering local produce on behalf of several farmers; all stood up to the occasion, and irrespective of lockdowns and curfews, found a way and risked their lives to ensure the food system in a city as big as Mumbai, continued to serve the people they had built a relationship with, knowing that an unspoken promise of relationships is, to be there for one another in the most challenging times. Similarly several consumers supported the local vendors, in cash or kind, when they had no business at all, so the community as a whole could emerge through this emotionally and financially.

We humans, are naturally a social species, and when we attune to what surrounds us, the energy becomes infectious. A combination of sharing, using digital tools smartly, and showing up for one another, nourished the meaning of `food’ itself, which transcends just the physical act of acquiring and eating. It is also a way to relationships, a way to emotional nourishment, and this was about being responsive, when most needed by one another.

4. How Locally Attuned & Responsive Are We?

Meanwhile communities that had lost their local vendors and suppliers over a period of time relying heavily on large supermarkets due to extreme urbanization; areas that had become real estate expensive for local vendors to even set up shops; or families/individuals who had overlooked investing in relationships with vendors right outside their gates, or with local farmers, were highly challenged. They experienced panic; travelled near and far to acquire food ingredients; or moved into extreme hoarding when any shop opened; as individually and collectively the foundation for local regional interdependent relationships had not been nurtured.

Time and again, we become aware that we as a species are so much a part of nature. The principles that apply to all life on earth, is part of us too. Such larger than life challenges are a way of learning, way of reconnecting, and a way to reflect and bring about beautiful shifts, which I also observed unfold:

During this time, several societies, apartments, communities, reconnected to what is local. They formed a network of vendors, and gave them access to enter the apartment buildings and do business within the premises for a certain number of hours every day. New relationships took birth, new interactions, new ways of selling, new ways of buying. People began to understand the importance and the joy of the small Kirana shops, and of their value within the community. Even after things eased up, even after the large supermarkets opened giving access to the choices we sometimes love to indulge in, I know of several people, who continue to nurture the local relationships they built during the peak of the pandemic crisis.

A new cycle of trust, love and care, is what the pandemic seems to have birthed, which is about being locally attuned and responsive.

5. Other Gifts of Being Locally Attuned & Responsive

What are some of the additional gifts of outcome, of being so locally attuned?

  • Wellness: When we encourage local traditional businesses and vendors, most of what they regularly bring to us is local, seasonal and regional too, which means it is fresh and secure and a gift to our health and nourishment.
  • Legacy: We actively participate in these interdependent relationships. Getting to know names, learning about our food, creating a thriving local economy, enriches the entire system. The gift of these new relationships, then become timeless. They are the assets and culture we get to pass from generation to generation.
  • And, the most important gift of outcome is – Resilient web of life: A much more resilient community or society, includes all Life that surrounds us, and contributes to the food web. The more we access all things local, the more the soil, the land, the farmers, and all other living beings who are a part of it, are nourished too. When they are nourished, the whole web we are a part of thrives, and in our most challenging times, they have the capacity to sustain us.

I hold deep gratitude for all our Mumbai vendors, Goan vendors, and vendors from across the world who served and continue to serve in these difficult times, even as we continue to nurture new relationships and local network, here in Goa.

I share this gift of reciprocity, traditionally inherent to India, which it still upholds through the Mom & Pop Kirana stores, local farmers, local vendors and even local aggregators who home deliver excellent seasonal produce, and I sincerely wish that we never have to go down the streets of our homes ever, and not exchange those knowing smiles; of the one who has the best red ripe tomatoes; or the one who has the right sized lemons; or one who sources the freshest greens; or one who sells produce from her farm just for an hour every day; or the several angels who aggregate produce from various farms, and make it convenient to order and receive excellent fresh produce, all of which we get to cook, taste and nourish our bodies with.

This post is also my sincere invitation for each one of you to share, how the idea of Being Locally Attuned and Responsive expanded for your community and you in your daily food ecosystem, during these times. How do you continue to nourish it?

Through my window, I see how the squirrels are pulling the stems of the red flowers with their front limbs, and burying their face into one red flower after another, even as two sunbirds are hovering and dipping their beaks into the other red flowers. The morning set of monkeys on our tamarind tree seem to have brought down enough tamarinds for us to gather, even as we walk to our dining table, to eat and nourish our bodies from the gifts of this utterly joyous and energising food web.

Thank you for reading.

Look forward to your sharing of what this essay brought up for you.

Have a weekend filled with the pleasures of eating.

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Comments(2)

    • Madhu lahoty

    • 5 days ago

    It’s such a pleasure reading your piece of writing !!

    1. Dear Madhu – thank you so much for reading the piece and for writing back. 💚
      So happy the words resonate. Hope all is good your end. Wishing you a lovely 2022. Hug.

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